Foie gras: like veal, it's one of the world's most controversial foods. Conventional foie gras is produced by restraining and force-feeding ducks or geese, skyrocketing their caloric intake and producing a heavy, fatty liver that's up to eight times larger than it would be if the bird were left to feed freely. Foie gras is best known in Europe, particularly in southwest France, where the creamy liver is produced in great quantity, then potted to be enjoyed later, traditionally with a hunk of bread or crisp crostini. But Americans are more than familiar with the delicacy, as evidenced by the recent heated debate in California that pitted animal rights activists—who say that the traditional foie gras production method, referred to as gavage, is unnecessarily cruel to the animals—against chefs such as Jon Shook of LA's Animal and Thomas Keller of Yountville's revered French Laundry, who love serving the luxurious ingredient. Two years ago, the animal rights side took the day when the state banned the sale of the engorged livers. But earlier this month, that decision was overturned by a federal judge who ruled the ban unconstitutional. Chefs rejoiced; activists protested.
But what if there were a way to satisfy both sides of the debate: the liver-lovers and the animal-protectors? Could there be a way to ethically, sustainably produce foie gras? One man, Eduardo Sousa, thinks so, because he's doing it.
A third-generation farmer in Extremadura in the southwest of Spain, Sousa is co-owner of Sousa & Labourdette, which he runs with Diego Labourdette, an expert in the migratory patterns of European birds. According to the company's informational video, Sousa's family has been enjoying naturally harvested foie gras since 1812, when it was a seasonal delicacy enjoyed around Christmastime. Sousa rose to prominence in 2008, when Blue Hill chef Dan Barber accompanied a reporter to the Spaniard's farm, where Barber learned about Sousa's all-natural, cruelty-free foie gras production methods and later tried—unsuccessfully—to reproduce them in Tarrytown at his Stone Barns location of Blue Hill.
Sousa's technique is simple: create an unbelievably appetizing environment for wild geese, who, as they migrate south in the fall, touch down on his farm to feast on acorns, grasses, figs, and flowers; then harvest those livers just before the geese pick up and migrate north. And yet it's complicated—it's unprofitable, as Sousa regularly loses 20 to 30 percent of his flock to predators, and cultivating just the right environment for the geese takes a lot of energy and hard work.
We spoke with Sousa about his product and got his thoughts on the ever-controversial process of gavage.
MUNCHIES: Do any other foie producers in the world use your method? Eduardo Sousa: As far as we know, we are the only producer that is able to obtain foie gras using a method based on the birds' migration instinct.
How did you develop your method for producing foie gras, and when did you decide to start marketing your product? I learned how to treat the geese from my father, who learned from his father, and so on. If geese are happy on my land, they will stay. In their free-range condition, what helps them want to stay is their natural instinct of overfeeding themselves when winter arrives; the result is a natural foie gras. It was not until 2006 when I won the Coup de Coeur award in the Salon International de l'alimentation, Paris that I decided to commercialize the production.
How many geese land on your farm each year? Does this number vary from year to year according to the migration patterns of the geese? We work with 1,000 geese for our foie gras. We do not really know the exact number of geese that land on our farm, as they stay some time and then they leave.
Have the birds' habits changed at all as a result of global warming? What we can see as a consequence of global warming is that now we have the production later than before. The geese used to be ready in November/December and now it's more like January. Last year, we had to wait until March.
What makes up the geese's diet other than acorns and grasses? We do not feed the geese, with the exception of a little corn every now and then, as a sweet. The geese feed themselves with everything they find in their path: acorns, grass, olives, figs, yellow lupine flowers, etc.
How do you determine when to harvest the foie gras? Again, as this is a natural process nothing is exact; that's the difficulty of this job. The season usually lasts from November to March. We know when the birds are preparing to migrate because we notice a different behavior: They start to eat around the clock.
The debate over gavage, or force-fed, foie gras seems never-ending. Do you believe it is cruel? I love animals and I respect them. I try to give them the best quality of life. I do not agree with force-feeding but neither am I an activist. I just concentrate on doing things my way.
How does your product differ in taste and texture from conventional foie gras? The size is the most important difference. Our foies are smaller, weighing between 400-700 grams. A force-fed goose foie gras can weigh up to 1.5 kilograms. Regarding the taste, our foie gras leaves less of a greasy sensation in the mouth. Its flavor is more subtle, as there is more protein than fat. With force-fed foie gras, the opposite is true.
What do you think of laws in the US banning the sale of foie gras, like the one that was recently overturned in California? I agree with anything that favors the animals' welfare.
Who are your typical customers? France and England are our main markets. But we have a huge interest from the USA also. Our customers are very aware of animal cruelty, and most of them have stopped eating force-fed foie gras.
Why isn't anyone else using your method to produce foie gras? Is it too complicated? Too expensive? Exactly. Our method is very complicated and not profitable, for the moment. It demands a lot of patience. But we love our work, and we hope to make a living off it in the near future.
Thanks for speaking with me, Eduardo.